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Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: What Do They Mean?

Every year in the UK around the end of February, a two-day period marks the beginning of the most important period for Christians. The night before Lent, also known as Shrove Tuesday, is a night when people eat pancakes. The day after is the first day of Lent. On Shrove Tuesday, we traditionally eat pancakes with all kinds of weird and wonderful fillings. But why do we eat them at all? Why do these two days matter?

Shrove TuesdayHow are the Dates Calculated?

It may sound rather pagan, but many Christian festivals have their roots in ancient pagan precursors. Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (the northern hemisphere). Ash Wednesday falls 46 days before Easter – calculated as 40 days plus six Sundays. Shrove Tuesday is simply the night before this calculated date.

What is Shrove Tuesday?

Through Christian history, Shrove Tuesday was (and is) a day of feasting before the fast of Lent. The word “Shrove” appears to have its origins in an archaic English word “Shrive”. This means “to confess”, a day on which people were to confess sins. It was their last chance to do so and receive penance ahead of lent. Some Catholic and other Protestant communities mark it as Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) – most notably New Orleans in the USA. The eating of pancakes is a strictly British tradition for this night of the year.

Pancakes have symbolic meaning in the context of the lent period. Observant Christians were traditionally forbidden indulgent dairy foods, sugar and fat during the fast. As some of these would not survive the period, it became a tradition to use them up in one feast. Pancakes are the quickest and easiest way to use most dairy products. We’re not entirely certain how far back the pancake goes, but some believe it has Slavic pagan origins. There is potential extra symbolism in the round design. It is said that the pancake symbolised the sun, marking the upcoming spring and the wish for an abundant crop for the coming summer.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Christians who observe the fast for lent (and many do not do so strictly anymore – choosing instead to give something up) are traditionally forbidden the above-mentioned foodstuffs and some others such as meat.

Traditionally, the end of winter was a time when food stocks were running low so Lent may have had some practical uses as well as religious, ready for the spring sowing. As we have intensive farming these days, society is not as concerned with the changing seasons. The traditions of modern Christian churches vary slightly but the thought behind Lent remains the same – confession and penitence.

Where does the name Ash Wednesday come from? Like Shrove’s origins in shriving, it gets its name from Catholic liturgy. During this period, priests put palm ash on the foreheads of parishioners. The priest or minister uses the ash from a palm blessed during the most recent Palm Sunday. It used to be an Anglican ritual but fell out of use in the 17th century.

Simple Pancake Recipe

Making pancakes is easy so long as you have the basic recipe right and ensure it does not burn. You need:

  • Two normal sized eggs
  • 100g of plain flour
  • A little salt
  • 1 tbsp of oil
  • 300ml of milk. Full fat milk makes a creamier texture

Mix the ingredients well by hand or using a food processor. Some people prefer to put the flour in first and make a well.

Heat the pan and ensure you use enough oil. The pancake needs to slip and slide around so it does not stick. Pour in some mixture to desired thickness and leave it a minute for the bottom side to set. Flip it if you’re feeling adventurous or carefully turn it over with a fork until the other side is done. Repeat until you’ve had enough.